Robertson Davies part two
Davies’s one genuine classic is Fifth Business. It’s a masterpiece, and the only book of his I really recommend wholeheartedly. It’s the one time that all of his forces: Anglophilia, a sense of comedy, polymath erudition (you’ll learn a lot about hagiography here), and the notion of a man’s life as a spiritual autobiography that can reflect all of our lives (Davies’s interest in Jungian archetypes begins here) was held perfectly in balance.
As is often the case, it’s harder to talk about a book you love than a book that you hate. I would say that Fifth Business has an actual plot, with a very impressive ending, which helps things a lot. Davies is also a lot more tightly reined in here: his flights on hagiography make sense in term of the character of the protagonist, who has become obsessed with the sense of the miraculous in the mundane. Also, and it’s kind of sad, given the amount of attention this kind of stuff is given later in Davies career, this is the only place I know of where the mystical enters the mundane world with just the right sort of impact. Like many an academician, Davies had a real tendency to over-explain everything – and this is the sort of thing that doesn’t bear the weight of much explanation. This is the only time I really think he hit it right.
Oh, and A Prayer for Owen Meany owes a hell of a lot to this book.
Davies never hit that peak again, although the two immediate follow-ups have their moments. The Manticore, most of it, anyway, is Davies best stab at a spiritual autobiography using Jungian archetypes. As I said to a friend, it’s one of the best examples I know in literature of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately Davies gets our hero off the couch for the final third of the book, and it’s a mistake – the ending is rushed and lazy and just not worth getting into. World of Wonders is another one of Davies spiritual autobiographies of an artist – here a magician. The first part, dealing with Magnus Eisengram’s adventures with carny folk, is really first rate – Davies puts a lot of his varied learning to good play here, the carny stuff is incredibly interesting – it turns out a Dickensonian take on the carnival, which when you see it in fiction is usually presented in a hardboiled way – is the rarity, a fresh look. Unfortunately World soon shifts gears to the theater, and while Davies is enthusiastic, I found the whole thing a pretty dreadful slog. Davies is to theater writing what George Will is to baseball writing: he tries hard, but, well, you’d rather not.
After that it’s all a pretty dreadful slog. Some people do like the Cornish trilogy: I personally find The Rebel Angels tedious (and not especially an accurate picture of academia) and The Lyre of Orpheus just absolutely awful, Davies at his worst, all out of control with his musings on gypsies, sex, cuckoldry, uses of myth, uses of art, the ways art plays into myth, how an artist is formed, what he/she needs, etc. I know, it sounds fascinating, but it’s not, it’s tiresome, a crank’s opinions strung out interminably. This is what happens when you have no discipline; yeah, verily, this is what happens when you don’t have an editor.
These two novels buttress What’s Bred in the Bone, which has it’s admirers but is not one of my favorites, mainly because Davies here is excessively taken with the notion of counterfeiting as an artistic stance, essentially. Certainly would make an interesting essay, not so much an interesting novel -- the drum is beat mercilessly for it. We also see a final sort of perversion of a device that worked reasonably well in The Manticore: a Socratic dialog in which one person is all-knowing and the other one’s a putz, and the dialog is really there just to point up how putzy (is that a word? Now it is!) this guy really is. That’ll work when you’re looking at psychoanalysis, since that’s essentially the dynamic that’s taking place, but life ain’t psychoanalysis.
I read online a critic quoted saying that when you first look at Davies, you think you see a lake miles across, but when you dip a toe into it, you’re shocked to see it’s only an inch deep. That’s a bit harsh, although there’s something to the snark: Davies is really like John Dickson Carr in a lot of ways, he apes classic British writing so well you expect you’re going to get classic British breadth, but in point of fact both men’s reach was quite short. It matters little with Carr, who never wanted to be anything more than an updated Gothic writer, I think, but Davies is trying to play on a bigger court, and there it shows. Reading a lot of Davies back to back points it up, too -- but hell, you could say that about anybody.
What I would say is that Davies really only had one story to tell after the journeyman/prepatory work of the Salterton trilogy: something like “a spiritual autobiography of a kind of creative man who learns lessons and experiences mythic occurances both extreme and subtle that bring light to us all”. Something like that. And he tries it again and again and again and he got it just right with Fifth Business, and thereafter never balanced the seesaw properly. But hey, if any of us can cough up a Fifth Business we’d be lucky men, so let’s not sneer too loudly.
Generally overrated, but he had his moments.